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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

The Crossroads Model

Through talking, listening, and sharing expertise, educators help one another chart a course forward.

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As we've attended various professional conferences over the years, we've noticed an interesting phenomenon—the most animated, high-quality conversations often take place outside the meeting rooms. In coffee shops, in hallways, and on furniture pulled to one side of an unoccupied ballroom, pairs or small groups gather to engage in energetic discussions. That made us wonder, why not make these collaborative conversations the centerpiece of a conference, rather than something people have to sneak away to accomplish?
We knew that we were not alone in being frustrated by attending conferences, hoping to be inspired by energizing and innovative ideas, only to find ourselves sitting through didactic presentations. Most educators thrive on genuine, face-to-face encounters with other people. When professional development fails to deliver such interactions, we feel cheated.
To meet this need, the two of us developed an alternative called Science Education at the Crossroads. Similar to a critical friends framework (Bambino, 2002), the Crossroads model brings together science educators across the K–16 spectrum to support one another.
The Crossroads model is designed not for novice educators who need basic, practical advice, but for midcareer educators who are at a decision point or other juncture where outside expertise would be helpful. Crossroads participants typically have an instructional goal in mind and are seeking wisdom from others about what considerations they should address before proceeding. Crossroads puts the confer back into conference, gathering dedicated individuals who benefit by exchanging ideas, weighing possibilities, and then returning home to deliberately move along their respective paths.

Vexations and Ventures

In contrast to what happens at unconferences, in which there is no pre-established schedule and people show up and talk with anyone about anything, Crossroads participants arrive only after writing up a persistent challenge (which we call a Vexation) and proposed solution (a Venture). For the Vexation, participants identify an aspect of their science education work that vexes them: "Beyond simply venting, carefully explain the source of your frustration, the reason the issue is so troublesome, and the implications of this vexation if left unresolved." The Venture describes a course of action the participant might initiate to resolve, diminish, or overcome the Vexation: "It is not expected that you have yet begun your venture. Instead, we envision that you are approaching a crossroads where a decision must be made about an appropriate venture. By identifying potential ventures, you provide an entry point for others to confer with you."
As the cohosts of Crossroads, we read every Vexation and Venture proposal. We provide feedback and suggest edits designed to make the documents as clear and thought-provoking as possible. We respectfully encourage each writer to think about his or her audience. The Vexation must feel genuine and significant enough to encourage conversation. Similarly, the Venture must not seem like an obvious or easy solution—it must raise questions that promote a sense of responsibility among participants. Quite often, we recommend that writers supply a list of discussion-starter questions. Our written exchanges with participants set the tone for the professional development conference itself.
Using our feedback, participants submit a revised version of their Vexation and Venture paper a few weeks before the Crossroads meeting. We compile all the Vexations and Ventures and send printed copies of them to all participants in advance. Individuals bring the materials to the sessions so that they can refer to them during the discussions. With a two-page spread open on the conference table in front of them, everyone can pay attention to the conversation at hand.
We've found that having the session materials printed out establishes a focused tone without the session facilitator having to make a big fuss about turning off smartphones, putting away tablets, or troubleshooting uncooperative projectors. This low-tech approach signals that Crossroads is not a typical plugged-in, multitasking professional development experience. Instead, the purpose is listening and responding to one another. This emphasis appears all the more important as people increasingly depend on technology while interpersonal skills erode (Turkle, 2011).
Here are some examples of Vexations and Ventures proposed for recent Crossroads conferences:
  • Christina's Vexation was that her newly opened environmental science magnet school was standardized-test crazy. She needed ideas about how she could most effectively demonstrate that outdoor studies would not detract from students' achievement.
  • Janice was vexed to discover that the preservice science teachers whom she taught lacked a sense of the "big ideas" in science. Her Venture was to recruit scientists to talk to her classes and reinforce the unifying ideas that bind science together.
  • Andy had a Vexation with helping teachers engage students in argumentation; his Venture was to develop techniques to make the value of this approach visible for teachers.
  • Jerome's Vexation was that the engineering component of STEM often lacks clear teaching strategies. As a Venture, he was proposing a template of quality engineering designs for teachers and students.
  • Allison teaches science in an urban high school. Her Vexation was that the district curriculum guide was low-level and lacked both rigor and interest. Her Venture was to consider going off-script and letting the scores fall as they may on the quarterly standardized science tests.

Structured Conversations

Along with the feedback cycle for the Vexations and Ventures, participants benefit from the structure of Crossroads sessions. The protocol for these sessions, which we call Incubators, ensures that the discussion moves forward. This clarity removes the ambiguities that can cause discomfort and decrease the productivity of a session (McDonald, Mohr, Dichter, & McDonald, 2003).
Two individuals work through their Vexation and Venture during each 75-minute Incubator. We schedule multiple Incubators to occur simultaneously, with a goal of having an average of 12 participants in each group. Smaller groups might bog down if there are not enough perspectives to share, whereas having too many people might prevent everyone from contributing. In most social groups, there are individuals with valuable perspectives who are not heard because other voices clamor for attention. By keeping the numbers low and providing a structure that invites conversation, Crossroads sessions give voice to all views.
The Incubator protocol allows the presenter to speak for the first portion of the session. During this 10-minute statement phase, the presenter strives to make his or her problem accessible and intriguing to the rest of the group. Next comes a 5-minute clarify stage, when other attendees briefly pose questions pertaining only to the facts of the situation, making sure they understand the context of the challenge. Then, during the incubate phase—the heart of the Incubator session—the presenter sits silently for 15 minutes as the audience members toss ideas back and forth, building on one another and sometimes offering contrary notions. This enables the presenter to hear fresh ideas without filtering them through justifications or needing to provide defenses. Finally, during the rejoin phase, the presenter has five minutes to comment, express gratitude, and perhaps ask a question.
In the statement phase of one recent Incubator, Kevin shared his Vexation that the "no fail" policy in his urban high school meant that students who did nothing for three quarters of the school year could still pass if they had high enough scores in the fourth quarter. During the clarify phase, someone asked about the rationale for this policy. Kevin explained it as an attempt to prevent students from falling behind in accruing credits toward graduation. When another attendee pressed Kevin to articulate his Venture, Kevin confessed that the entire issue left him stymied and that he was hoping for suggestions. With that, the facilitator announced that it was time to shift to the incubate phase. The facilitator reminded participants that the conversation should occur as if Kevin were not present.
Over the next 15 minutes, many perspectives and ideas were shared. Martha proposed that Kevin work with his colleagues to push back against the policy. Tracy, responding directly to Martha, offered a less confrontational tactic, suggesting that Kevin confide to his students that if they gamed the system and coasted into the last grading period, they would not be learning what they needed to know. Marshall carried this idea forward by proposing that Kevin share his concerns with his students' parents. In effect, Kevin could advocate for excellence without undermining his administrators' rules. During the final five minutes, Kevin stated that he had greatly benefited from the conversation. The best part, he noted, was that the group confirmed his frustrations while also giving him reasons to be hopeful. As is often the case, the conversation did not conclude at the end of this session. Even after the conference, people were sending Kevin readings to encourage him while also giving him practical strategies.

The Importance of Facilitators

The Crossroads professional development model represents a different set of cultural expectations. During a given Incubator, there are just three roles: the presenter, the audience, and the facilitator. Participants playing each role have behaviors they are expected to enact to conform to the group norms.
We recruit knowledgeable outsiders as facilitators to keep Incubators on track and to regulate the conversation. Facilitators monitor time and make sure discussions remain focused. It's important that facilitators not otherwise engage in the sessions so that their role remains clear and all participants accept their authority to enforce the rules—for example, correcting a participant for asking anything other than clarifying questions during the clarify phase of the Incubator. On occasion, facilitators have the right to intervene during discussions to remind everyone about the focal points of the Vexation and Venture. Again, because that is their accepted role, the attendees respect their guidance.
We have found that the best facilitators are current novices (for example, new teachers or doctoral students) who are learning about the profession and are content to monitor the Incubator deliberations without drifting from their task and injecting their own perspectives.

Why Crossroads Works

The term crossroads evokes a place where a person faces a dilemma and needs to choose from among multiple paths. Knowing which way to go requires checking the signs and sensing what lies ahead. We might also think of a crossroads as an intersection where individuals meet but then continue on their own separate journeys. Both of these concepts are at play in the Crossroads model.
Unlike some other kinds of learning communities, the Crossroads model is a focused gathering of people who anticipate moving forward on their own rather than joining forces. Our participants have individual ambitions, commitments, and talents. A Crossroads event enables them to share their goals, but honors them as professionals who are following distinct trajectories. Crossroads breaks the isolation that midcareer educators often experience in their workplace. Knowing there are others who also struggle emboldens them to continue striving for excellence—albeit on their own terms, at their own pace, and in their respective spaces. Crossroads is immeasurably valuable for helping committed educators find the means to act on their professional judgment and beliefs.
Other powerful features of the model—including the proposal-writing process and the Incubator discussion format—remind professional educators of the benefits of listening with attention and respect. In an education climate where "communicating" can often take the form of "announcing," the culture and structures of the Crossroads model offer a unique forum for hearing others and being heard.
In post-Crossroads surveys and telephone interviews, participants frequently mention that in this forum they feel safe letting down their guard and listening to new ideas and perspectives. Participants routinely rate the Incubators for other people's Vexations and Ventures as just as informative and satisfying as their own, demonstrating that opportunities to hear critiques of what others are attempting can be immensely valuable. We view that response as testament to the professional community arising from the Crossroads model.
Our follow-up evaluations also indicate that much of the value of Crossroads is a result of the personal efforts put into it, rather than just the structure of the model. Participants attribute the success of Crossroads to the investment of the conference presenters and planners. As with any daring undertaking, this model requires participants to push beyond their comfort levels. We don't think the model could work otherwise—nor would it be so rewarding.
References

Bambino, D. (2002). Critical friends. Educational Leadership, 59(6), 25–27.

McDonald, J. R., Mohr, N., Dichter, A., & McDonald, E. C. (2003). The power of protocols: An educator's guide to better practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

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